South Lyon East High School players run through a practice session recently. After posting their first-ever winning season (12-10) last season, they've started off this year at 3-0, but still have plenty of things to check off of coach Rob Leadley's list. (Photo by MATTHEW B. MOWERY)
Basketball - Girls
GIRLS BASKETBALL: Cougars trying to establish winning tradition at South Lyon East WITH VIDEO
South Lyon East coach Rob Leadley talks to his team during a timeout in a game against Ann Arbor Skyline earlier this season. The Cougars are off to another fast start a season after the young program posted its first-ever winning season. (Photo courtesy of South Lyon East girls basketball/DAWN PETZ)
The South Lyon East logo at midcourt. (Photo by MATTHEW B. MOWERY)
South Lyon East guard Sydney Jones (11) attacks the basket in a game against Ann Arbor Skyline earlier this season. The Cougars are off to another fast start a season after the young program posted its first-ever winning season. (Photo courtesy of South Lyon East girls basketball/DAWN PETZ)
SOUTH LYON — It was probably a perfect slogan for the academic side of things, but for athletics, it smacked of a consolation prize, a participation ribbon given out to youngsters for just showing up.
Then again, when you’re a start-from-scratch athletic program like all of those at the six-year-old South Lyon East High School, you had to know that you were going to have to “try” a lot before you could succeed — at least on a sustained level.
And no one would fault you if you just tried and failed once or twice — or a lot more — along the way.
“It was true to an extent. When I first came here, there was an infamous motto saying: ‘We try.’ Even clubs, student council, (National Honor Society), any sport, people didn’t expect us to do well,” said senior Solana Gillis, who as a senior is now a four-year player for the girls basketball program, as well as a member of the track team.
“And we kind of turned that on ourselves, if people weren’t expecting much from us, we weren’t expecting much from our teammates, and the program.”
In the early days, what they expected was what they got on the hardwood.
There were a pair of two-win seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10, followed by a three-win season in 2010-11.
“Don’t remind me,” said Rob Leadley, who was at the helm when the program was created, at first participating as a junior varsity team the first year the school was open. “I just remember talking to Willow Cohn, she was one of our star players last year, and she said, ‘Why is it we can’t win? Why can’t we get over the hump?’ Because we have pretty talented kids. I think it’s like the old NBA thing: You’ve gotta be in the Finals once before you win it.
“We can tell them all the time, but they have to understand what it takes to win. It’s not always about who can shoot it best.”
For the longest time, that ‘trying’ had not translated to ‘winning.’ Leadley was sporting a 19-66 career record before the season started.
That’s even more remarkable when you realize that 12 of those wins came last year, when the Cougars finished their first-ever winning season at 12-10, losing in the Class B district finals, just a point away from a first-ever championship of any sort.
Even better, they take a 3-0 record into Thursday’s first road game of the season, attempting to record the program’s first-ever 4-0 start if they can get a win at Milan.
Shoot, just two seasons ago, a winning streak wasn’t even something that the Cougars could contemplate.
“I don’t remember (if we had one). It’s a blur. It was a lot of losses,” said Gillis, who knew something was different when the Cougars started last season 5-1. “But it was a big change. A big change, for sure.”
It was something that Leadley could feel building, even in the summer before.
“We had a core group of kids that did a lot together, and we started beating (people). We’d show up with five or six kids, and beat people that we’d never beaten before — and, I mean, not even scored against in the summer,” he said.
“That was a sign, for me.
“I mean, we just plastered some people. ... We heard the Northville coach saying to his kids, ‘They’re going to surprise somebody next year, and it better not be us!’ ”
For years, the Cougars had been the ones getting plastered, as the only Class B team in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association.
In those two- and three-win seasons, most of the margins of loss were not even close — there easily as many 30- and 40-point losses on the final schedule, as there were close games.
“It was a lot different than what we were used to, especially my freshman and sophomore years, it was really rough. ... After that, we were just kind of used to losing, I guess. That’s kind of not the greatest feeling. Finally having a successful season felt really great. Felt like all the hard work had paid off,” senior Erica Meissner said.
“I think both of us, me and Solana, had points where we were like, ‘We don’t know when our hard work is going to pay off.’ After a while, it’s like, it has to pay off sometime. It finally did.”
And what did it finally feel like?
“Oh, it was so much fun. You see all the movies, and the TV shows, and a basketball team being like a family, good friends and winning, and that’s finally what it was like,” Meissner said. “All of us were real good friends, and we had a lot of fun at practice, games. ... It was a lot more fun than just losing constantly.”
The Cougars were finally able to start whittling down the extensive list of goals on Leadley’s infamous checklist he’d written out at the program’s birth.
“It’s a very long list. It’s very ambitious, going all the way to things like winning state championships. Every year, we’re just looking to cross off more,” Gillis said. “Definitely, that’s a possibility, getting more wins off that list.”
They did their share in 2011-12.
Winning season? Check.
Win over a KLAA division rival? Check. (Salem twice.)
District win. Check.
District title? Almost another check.
The Cougars lost 41-40 in overtime to Linden in the district title game last year. That close loss — more maybe than any of the litany of blowout losses early in their career — sticks with the players from East.
“It’s true. When they’re close, you’re just right there. It was like your shot, or your turnover — you start to think of the little details, the extra inch you could’ve given, you could’ve sprinted a little faster. It really hurts a lot more when you lose by something like one point in overtime,” Gillis said.
“I get a little fire in me when people bring up the game.”
So what’s the next check that’s gotta fall? One special one that they’d particularly like to get?
“Of course. Yes ... South Lyon. We are very, very confident this year. Senior year, looking to go out strong. They’ve had it (bragging rights) since we started,” said Gillis, who played CYO basketball with several of the Lions players when they were all younger. “They’ve always had that thing where we’ve never beaten them. You read in the paper what their coaches say, what their players say, and it just gets to you a lot, when you’ve been here for four years, and haven’t beaten them at all.”
No, the Cougars have never beaten their cross-town rivals in girls basketball, even though last year’s games were both very close. East took a 5-1 record into the first meeting, but lost one of their key players, Taylor Jones, to a knee injury in what turned out to be a relatively close loss.
“I think that’s going to be a big game. That’s going to prove a lot this year. Last year, even though we lost both of them, it was still really close. Our skill levels on both teams are really close, so I don’t think it’s going to be a blowout by any means. I think it’s going to be a close game,” Meissner said. “And I think that’s one game that we all feel like we really, really deserve at this point. We just want to prove to everyone that we’re not just the ‘little’ South Lyon East girls basketball team, we’re actually a team that can compete with everyone else in the league.”
For as far as the Cougars’ program has come, there are still stumbling blocks. That’s one.
And it’s been hard to be the new guy in what had always been a one-high school town.
“I just remember, the first year I coached, I was doing kind of a recruiting thing at the middle school. I was in the bathroom, and I was wearing East stuff, and the janitor says, ‘You know, you’ve got a lot of nerve wearing that here,’ ” Leadley recalled. “It was like, ‘Half your kids are going to my school!’ ”
The two middle schools, Centennial and Millennium, which sit side-by-side on 9-mile road, both feed students to both high schools. So there’s always a pretty good chance that every player in the cross-town rivalry has played at some point with someone from the other squad.
That makes it all that much harder when you never, ever come out on top.
“My two best friends go to South Lyon, so there were definitely some times where I was like ‘I don’t want to be here. I want to be part of tradition,’ ” Gillis admitted.
“Being part of something that — we were kind of guinea pigs sometimes, for different traditions, trying to get things going. It’s definitely a different experience. And I’m actually really thankful for it, because it teaches you a lot about being confident in yourself, being confident in your peers, your teammates — I wouldn’t change that. I’m very glad.”
For those kids who did go to East, rather than the tradition-steeped South Lyon, maybe they did miss out on adding to some of the traditions of the older sister school.
But they got to get in on the ground floor on starting their own.
Like the tradition of winning that seems to be just beginning for the girls basketball program.
They used to ‘try.’ Now they win.
“It’s amazing to know that you’re a part of something, you started it,” Gillis said. “I can only hope it will just continue when we leave, and people will follow what we did and make it a tradition.”
Email Matthew B. Mowery at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @matthewbmowery.